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Citizen activist movements can invigorate local politics

Photo: Marc Lozano/CC BY-SA 2.0 (the photo is cropped).
Photo: Marc Lozano/CC BY-SA 2.0 (the photo is cropped).

By adopting methods used by activist citizen movements, municipal level politics can become more inclusive and even pave the way for sustainable transformations. Mine Islar, from LUCSUS, has studied the politics of Barcelona en Comú, an activist citizen platform that came to power in the municipality of Barcelona in 2015.

Mine Islar, has followed Barcelona en Comú for three years, from 2015 - 2018. She is interested in social transformations - and whether activist citizen movements can make a difference when and if they gain power in governments.

"Municipal level politics impact on people’s everyday lives. By incorporating some of the methods used by activist and grass roots movements, I argue that municipal politics can become both invigorated and closer to local issues, since their way of doing politics can help open up the city to the citizens and create a stronger sense of inclusion", says Mine Islar. 

Mine Islar says that Barcelona en Comú characterises itself as a ‘movement-party’ as their politics includes grassroots and activist methods such as horizontal and vertical practices of decision making, where local neighborhoods are involved. The neighborhoods hold local meetings and present project proposals about what needs to be done in their locality in Barcelona en Comú’s monthly gatherings. The party also work through co-design and co-production of policies regarding public services such as water, energy and gender rights together with civil society including cooperatives and the LGBTQ community. Meetings are often held in public spaces such as parks and low income neighborhoods in order to encourage inclusion.

Since Barcelona en Comú came to power, she explains, the platform has moved forward with an urban mobility plan to establish superblocks, where car roads are transformed into public spaces for arts, culture, leisure, and other recreational activities – as a way to encourage local participation. In order to foster public transportation, the platform has also transferred part of the municipal budget to extend metro lines to poorer areas of the city. It has also taken some restrictive measures to the expanding tourism industry in the city by cancelling licences of big hotel projects, in response to citizens’ growing concerns around its impacts on the city. 

"Their achievements show that they can be a platform for sustainable change, and that municipal politicians could do well in emulating them. Their politics clearly show that they are solution-orientated. They have the advantage of being close to the citizens, and an ability to mobilise in various ways such as crowdfunding to finance pilot projects", says Mine Islar.

Yet, the success of Barcelona en Comú also has its roots in the fact that the party was very timely and effective in mobilising momentum after the Spanish occupy movement which revitalised neighborhood assemblies and urban initiatives by politicising citizens, and the very strategic way the movement co-designed their election campaign together with the citizens, who helped out with skills, labour and resources. 

While other countries can have very different political systems, Mine Islar argues that municipal politics could still do well in looking into ways of becoming more inclusive, in spite of laws governing citizen participation and building and planning processes. 

"I believe that citizens everywhere need to feel connected to address climate change, urbanisation and migration, regardless of the political system. Involving people, and looking to activist methods and tools, can be used to create opportunities for collaboration which might serve as learning platforms both for local politicians but also for activists", says Mine Islar.

The real test for Barcelona en Comú will be the upcoming local elections in Barcelona in 2019. If they are re-elected, it will be a clear signal that this new way of doing politics is seen as a force for good by the majority of the citizens. The outcome will also depend on national politics, since many of their supporters want local politicians to take sides in the Catalonian independence movement.

"The upcoming municipal elections are very important for Barcelona en Comú. It will show if their way of doing things can take serious hold in the city, and maybe even beyond. But it can be hard for municipal politics to escape national politics", she concludes.

Urban Governance & Transformation

The research falls under the research theme Urban Governance & Transformation.

It is part of the project Ecological citizen and right to the city movements in Europe, funded by Vetenskapsrådet. It ran from 2015 to 2018.

Publication: Grassroots practices of citizenship and politicization in the urban: the case of right to the city initiatives in Barcelona.

About the researcher

Mine Islar is an Associate senior lecturer at LUCSUS. She has a research interest in water and energy governance, social movements and collective action, degrowth and migration.

To Mine Islar's personal page.